Gravity and Grace in Richard II


The Review’s Review

From How do You Hold Your Debt?, Christine Sun Kim’s portfolio in issue no. 241. COURTESY OF CHRISTINE SUN KIM, FRANÇOIS GHEBALY, AND JTT.

In the opinion of Simone Weil, King Lear was the only one of Shakespeare’s tragedies completely permeated with a pure spirit of love, and therefore on a level with the “immobile” theater of the Greeks. Perhaps Richard II never caught her attention at an auspicious moment. It is, anyway, very difficult to grasp and wrest into the light this mysterious tragedy, the most silent of all of Shakespeare’s works—this path that is constantly covering its own tracks, this voice that doesn’t want to raise any particular problem or to support any particular thesis. A story recounted with eyes downcast, slowly and, one might say, in the dark: en una noche oscura.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings—
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed.

For five long symphonic acts, full of returns and rigorous reprises, confined in the very tight mesh of unbroken blank verse, not a single laugh, in this drama of young people, not one gallantry or a pleasantry, even a lugubrious one, from a clown. Not one of those great breaths of spring or autumn. Not one of those gratuitous songs as natural to Shakespeare as the circulation of the blood. In Richard II, everything falls inexorably down. Everything obeys the law of gravity. And yet it is in Richard II, more than in any other work since Homer, that the royal gestures “continually cross like blinding flashes” and grace blooms, a pure, pale flower, on the dark foliage of necessity. Never, I think, have “gravity and grace” been more exactly encapsulated in a play.

If Hamlet is the tragedy of irresolution, Richard II is the tragedy of relativity, or rather of reversibility. A group of young princes, united by ties of blood, and profoundly divided by this same blood (which has many times been spilled by their ancestors), whose consciences are extremely refined and whose spirits are ardent and melancholic, unremittingly clash in an attempt at loyalty and unity that is continually frustrated. Behind them two old men, John of Gaunt and the Duke of York, grow feeble and obscurely fall into the same strain, already tinged with defeat or with a presage of death.

Call it not patience, Gaunt. It is despair.

By the end of the play, not one of these characters (except two of the most peculiar, Northumberland and Carlisle)—not one of these men striving toward a solemn, absolute assertion of self—will still wear the ardent expression he wore at the start. The law of gravity will transform them, one by one. It will give them different expressions, different gestures, different absolutes. It will convert them all into the common absolute of misfortune—already familiar to the old but terrifying to the young—and at this somber threshold they will slowly turn around and say a final farewell to grace, in sorrowful, loving remembrance of those they have lost or will have to lose, according to the law of gravity.

For Mowbray and myself are like two men
That vow a long and weary pilgrimage.
Then let us take a ceremonious leave
And loving farewell of our several friends.

The very slow fall of Richard II, immersed little by little, as into boiling oil, in his own essential grandeur; Bolingbroke’s ascension to an irresistible throne, which overpowers his pure, law-defending temperament; the foolish loyalty old York shows to the new king in an effort to make up for his heartbreaking disloyalty to the old one; the terror of death in the heroic boy Aumerle—the fatal fruit of his boyhood: In this chivalric drama, there is not a single chivalric situation that does not eventually fall back on necessity—and that, from this necessity, does not reach out toward the most spiritual chivalry—which is to say, toward grace. Gestures of grace that the poet pauses midair, when they are just about to fall. The grievous and chastened sorrow of each individual voice, isolated and yet flowing into the others,

Like an unseasonable stormy day,
Which makes the silver rivers drown their shores
As if the world were all dissolved to tears . . .

Certainly in no other tragedy by Shakespeare, or by anyone else, have aversion and rancor been so perfectly ignored—absent from the depths of the soul and the envelope of the language alike.

Each of the characters, once he has finished with his moral violence, redeems it by means of respect. York, who has become a traitor by the law of gravity, speaks of the fallen Richard:

As in a theater the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious;
Even so, or with much more contempt, men’s eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard. No man cried “God save him!”
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home,
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head,
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combatting with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God for some strong purpose, steeled
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted . . .

The vanquished king hands over the crown of England to his rebel cousin, whom he had earlier banished, then dispossessed, according to the law of gravity. The conscience of “the Lord’s anointed,” which is as strong in him as it is in all the others, even after he has lost the throne, here dissolves into a miraculously clear-eyed meditation on his own misfortune:

Here, cousin, seize the crown. . . .
On this side my hand, and on that side thine.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.

An unmerited offense, called down by the law of gravity, can still be redeemed by grace, and in this case without any effort at all, in perfect purity. A gardener has imprudently spoken to a servant of Richard’s fall. The Queen, in the shade of a tree, overhears him, and in her despair hopes that the plants tended by this messenger of misfortune will cease to grow. Left alone, the gardener thinks aloud:

Poor queen! so that thy state might be no worse,
I would my skill were subject to thy curse.
Here did she fall a tear. Here in this place
I’ll set a bank of rue, sour herb of grace.
Rue, even for ruth, here shortly shall be seen
In the remembrance of a weeping queen.

Bolingbroke, the new king, is finally brought his “buried fear,” which is to say the corpse of Richard, who has been killed by a courtier who had heard that the new king desired his death. To the murderer, who is in any case already repentant and full of reverence for the royal blood he has spilled, Bolingbroke responds with the loyalty that is the basso continuo of the entire tragedy, the constant of all its characters:

They love not poison that do poison need,
Nor do I thee. Though I did wish him dead,
I hate the murderer, love him murdered.
Lords, I protest, my soul is full of woe
That blood should sprinkle me to make me grow.

It is this marvelous consciousness of the core of human tragedy, the reciprocity and the simultaneous incompatibility of the elements that compose it—influence and destiny—that bonds these men’s souls so closely together. Actions have only a sad, intermediary function. Beauty alone can affix a seal on words or deeds.

So it always is and always has been, since the immobile first act (to which the memory repeatedly returns), when the two young knights, Mowbray of Norfolk and Bolingbroke, were presented to the King and accused each other of treason. The weight of truth was already shifting continually: at first it was Norfolk, then Bolingbroke, who was convincing—and the King subtly doubted, not them, but the truth itself. It is only natural that he should have tried to pardon them, even if at the risk of his own life; and their refusal is just as natural, their wish to fight so that death itself might condemn or absolve them. Unlike all of Shakespeare’s other tragedies, Richard II has its longest and most seriously significant pause in the first act. This is in the very slow heraldic episode, where the loveliness of the young, indomitable figures is entirely enshrouded in the bluish gray of dawn, the inexpressibly pathetic bell-tolling of a chivalric ceremony—and the sadness of the reciprocal respect that, in the most intense instants, is transformed into a naked silence, already stripped of all hatred and conscious only of the misfortune to come.

For Mowbray and myself are like two men
That vow a long and weary pilgrimage;
Then let us take a ceremonious leave
And loving farewell of our several friends.

With a graceful gesture, interrupting the duel, Richard has for an instant halted the law of gravity—but only to be doubly overwhelmed by it, since the measure of gravity and grace is always and inevitably equal. It is the spared life of Bolingbroke that, following a concatenation of events rigorously alternating between influence and destiny, will naturally bring about Richard’s death.


Is it important to ask ourselves by what paths Shakespeare arrived at this perfect equilibrium of spiritual perceptions, which has no precedents and which we will not find so purely distilled in any of his later works? Perhaps it would not be if the tragedy itself were not continually breaking away from us, its spectators or readers, and soaring to that zone of profound mystery I have called la noche oscura. A zone of mystery that (as in the duel scene in Richard II) is the first and perhaps the most charged of all the great Shakespearean plays. Indeed, according to a chronology as sparse as it is rich in illuminations, before Richard II Shakespeare had only written comedies and one grim exercise: Titus Andronicus. King John was quite probably written later, and there is no proof that the first two parts of Henry IV, which are set a little nearer to this period, preceded it. But all this hardly matters. Only one thing is certain: Richard II is the telltale pause that declares the first great experiences of the soul. Everything in this pause is eloquent—the scarceness and austerity of the images, all subjected to the greatest spiritual tension; the unusual sense of time, mercilessly and minutely measured by the verse; and above all the attempt, which is even more unusual considering this is Shakespeare, to keep everything within the confines of the purest sorrow. The image of the man, as the work elusively proceeds, seems so close and so immobile it makes us think of an optical illusion—the result, perhaps, of that veil of tears that he continually suspends between himself and us.

Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows
Which shows like grief itself, but is not so;
For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects,
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion . . .

But where the glaring identification between author and character lets us see the whole tragedy as a pure meditation—a secret tribute or a secret apology—is in the fallen Richard’s lamentations. Here is the mark of misfortune out of reach for mere imagination; the mark of that misfortune “which has nothing to do with unhappiness” and which alone reveals to us the monotony of horror; the immobility of time, in horror, that swallows up everything; the sameness, in horror, of all human losses. Thus Richard feels, in prison, his own person has been transformed into time:

How sour sweet music is,
When time is broke . . .
For now hath time made me his numbering clock.
My thoughts are minutes . . .

Thus he imagines the mere falling of tears will be enough to dig a grave:

We’ll make foul weather with despised tears . . .
As thus, to drop them still upon one place
Till they have fretted us a pair of graves
Within the earth; and therein laid—there lies
Two kinsmen digged their graves with weeping eyes.

Thus he feels the blood of twenty thousand soldiers pouring down his face:

Comfort, my liege; why looks your grace so pale?
But now the blood of twenty thousand men
Did triumph in my face, and they are fled;
And, till so much blood thither come again
Have I not reason to look pale and dead?
All souls that will be safe, fly from my side,
For time hath set a blot upon my pride.

No less, and perhaps more, than the Sonnets themselves, Richard II’s fall bears witness to Shakespeare’s noche oscura—that compulsory passage in human existence through moral violence out of which, dead or alive, a new man cannot but emerge. That the tragic emotional parable of the Sonnets is begun during this same period in Shakespeare’s life may mean a great deal or very little. The report of the death—also around this time—of Hamnet Shakespeare, his eleven-year-old son, or the story of Shakespeare leaving London to retire, at the age of thirty-two and at the height of his adventure in acting, to the small town of Stratford may also mean a great deal or very little. The one thing we know for certain is that the violence was converted into suffering, and that the suffering divinely blossomed into love.


From The Unforgivable and Other Writingsto be published by New York Review Books in February. 

Translated from the Italian by Alex Andriesse.

Cristina Campo (1923–1977) was an Italian writer, poet, and translator. A congenital heart malformation kept her out of school and social life for much of her childhood, forcing her into a reclusion enlivened by her reading. A bona fide autodidact, she had by her teens begun to read deeply in Italian, French, German, Spanish, and English literature. After World War II, she moved to Rome, where she became acquainted with Eugenio Montale, Curzio Malaparte, and Roberto Bazlen, among others. She nearly always published under pseudonyms (Cristina Campo being one of them) and translated—Simone Weil, Katherine Mansfield, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf—far more than she wrote.

Alex Andriesse’s stories, essays, and poems have appeared in GrantaThe Review of Contemporary Fiction, Prodigal, and Literary Imagination. He has translated several works from Italian and French and is an associate editor at New York Review Books.